“Once upon a time.” Those are four magic words, four words that promise us the world, adventure and romance and fantasy and drama. The starter’s pistol to any fairytale, they offer up immediate escape: “a time” is never now, you see, and we’re instantly whisked away from the humdrum of our everyday. Our imagination, like a suddenly alert hound, perks up its ears and begins to underscore even ordinary narratives with flourishes the narrator never spells out. With those four words in place, anything can follow.
Vikramaditya Motwane understands this well, which is why his masterful adaptation of a classic O Henry story, nearly a hundred years old, begins with a father caressing a daughter with far older folklore. As the ailing daughter listens, the story snaps a character’s neck, and the bassline in her head begins to thrum. Lootera makes it crystal clear right from the start that it is an old-world tale — one involving buried treasure, no less, and rhymes about lizards and rats — and then, with its sleeves rolled up, begins to enchant.
The film opens gently, with a cough. The girl is a writer, the daughter of a Bengali zamindar — naturally she’d have studied at Shantiniketan? That’s what the boy rightly assumes, popping into her path as an archaeologist, but now shoehorned into her service as an art teacher. He pretends, she indulges, and one thing leads inevitably to another until we come thudding across to that heartbreaking finale we inaccurately thought we’d braced ourselves for.
An exquisite but hard-to-translate word in Bangla called “aadikheta” means, in my clumsy approximation, an appetite for being pampered (worded as if pampering were a sweetmeat), and I can think of no better word for Motwane’s heroine, Pakhi. A feisty girl who has largely been bred on affection by her doting father, her intelligence doesn’t get in the way of her wondering, during the abolition of zamindari in the early 50s, just what the government will do by seizing their gardens. So used is she to having her way that when a man thwarts her overtures, the feeling of rejection is too unfamiliar to register. Instead she is merely confounded.
Her fellow, Varun, is a more street-smart sort, one who might not watch a film as soon as it releases but knows enough to cheekily make a reference to it later. When we first meet him, he’s calm, unhurried and mostly unflappable — playing an art-teacher might be a stretch for him, however. Nevertheless, he gamely calls drawing leaves easy, and confidently daubs at the canvas with green paint. The contrast between the two characters is delightful, and the actors conjure up a fierce, throbbing chemistry.
Sonakshi Sinha plays Pakhi beautifully, creating a character who is immaculately wide-eyed and possesses casual, yet unmistakable, grace. It is a performance that starts off dreamily soft and turns harder, and she does well-etched dialogue justice like few actresses can. There’s a discernible vulnerability to Pakhi throughout the film, and Sinha brings out this fragility perfectly without ever overplaying it. Ranveer Singh matches her step for step, using his lower lip to marvelous effect. He curls it when angry, juts it out when thoughtful and lets it hang loose (and, finally, frostbitten) when he has nothing to say. And again, he plays it close to the chest, never straying from the pitch of the film: when he stammers on the word “landscape”, he lightly labours the L instead of actually repeating it. He looks good as a quiet pinup, a vintage hero in high-waisted trousers, but it is when he bedraggedly lets his seams show that Singh is at his best. He even snarls like Heathcliff.
And despite all this proficiency with dialogue — which extends to the other great performers in the film, the veteran Barun Chanda (who uses words like “umartaraaz” with near-Utpal Dutt gravitas) and the very likable Vikrant Massey, who throws in a Devsaab impression — the very best moments in Lootera are the entirely wordless ones.
This is largely due to the remarkable craft shown by cinematographer Mahendra J Shetty, who has composed a film where every frame melts into the other with a most lyrical ebb and flow. Lootera is a gorgeous, gorgeous film, one that uses its period setting affectionately, with loving detail, and not exploitatively, as our cinema is wont to do. Shetty pores over it all — from the lace curtains to the mosquito nets, from the checkerboard floors of the old mansion to the frozen-over remnants of a roadside shrine to a dashboard light surrounded by open-air darkness — but the way he frames his actors’ faces may be the greatest masterclass on offer.
Both Sinha and Singh have distinctive noses, and rather than divert attention away from them the film embraces the contrast, highlighting it by a profile shot of the two in the same frame. Before we encounter Sonakshi’s nose we see that of a Durga effigy, and the uniqueness of the actress’ nose is thrown automatically into sharp relief. Later, when Sinha’s angry, the lens is positioned to make her nose look like a menhir; it’s always intentional, and it’s always captivating. Singh’s is a more angular nose, one that looks pointy as sweat drips off it during a dimly lit-scene, and the first time the two kiss, it is preceded by an eskimo-style rubbing of the noses. Many cinematographers can conjure up moody shadows and beautiful frames, but what is on show here — as Sinha looks through a big magnifying glass to make her eyes appear huge, as the Bengali-girl stereotype dictates — is so much more special, and Shetty is clearly a wizard.
All this while Motwane plays The Thieving Magpie. And I don’t just mean the Rossellini overture that automatically reminds me of The Castafiore Emerald. Lootera deftly pays tribute to Guru Dutt’s first film by way of song and name of the villain, and borrows a disease from Ritwik Ghatak’s heartwrenching Meghe Dhaka Tara. All this while genius composer Amit Trivedi uncharacteristically steals his main theme from a bad English film, as if some pickpocketry was the price of entry. In light of what the titular protagonist does, perhaps this adaptation could be titled The Last Thief.
Either way, this is a film worth the grandest of larceny. Motwane’s direction is so assured and confident that this scarcely feels like his second feature. The script is clearly one he believes in, and the film is resultantly free of false-notes. Even the few moments that feel like narrative missteps turn out to be masterstrokes. And, as exemplified by a breathtaking chase sequence that could result in any number of outcomes, Motwane sides with his story, not with any one of his characters.
A film, then, about life, love and leaves. And in the end it comes down to the sort of snow-surrounded tree that you can draw even if you’ve always had trouble drawing leaves. Magnificent.
Rating: 5 stars
First published Rediff, July 4, 2013